The Carolina Panthers returned to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for the start of their 2021 training camp. The team is coming off a disappointing 5-11 season and has gotten even younger this offseason.
There are plenty of question marks and uncertainty on the roster as the Panthers begin their summer preparations for the season. Here are some key areas where the team hopes to get some clarity before the season kicks off:
This spot is a twofer for the Panthers — a question mark and a position battle. Sam Darnold will be the starter, replacing veteran Teddy Bridgewater. Darnold is young and showed promise, but he struggled in his time with the Jets.
Most people have assumed the move to Darnold will be an upgrade after a string of disappointing performances in the clutch by Bridgewater, but the departed vet was 10 percentage points more accurate than Darnold last year and had a QB rating 24 points higher.
Coordinator Joe Brady thinks he can fix Darnold, but that’s far from a certainty.
Behind Darnold, returning backups P.J. Walker and Will Grier will battle for the QB2 spot.
One reason given for Darnold’s struggles in New York was a lack of protection. The Panthers line could be just as shaky. Pro Football Focus had the Panthers line ranked 31 out of 32 teams last year.
The team has position battles on each side of the line.
On Darnold’s blindside, Cam Erving will get the chance to win the starting left tackle job. A former first-round draft pick, he’s playing for his fourth team and is still looking for the chance to be the man at left tackle. He’ll have to beat out Trent Scott and Greg Little, who have each had the chance to win the job already, and rookie Brady Christensen.
Both guard spots are also unsettled. Pat Elflein and Deonte Brown are the favorites to win the spots on the left and right, respectively, but as many as a half-dozen linemen will be involved in the competition.
Backup skill positions
The top two receivers should be rising star DJ Moore and Robby Anderson, who is reunited with Darnold after starting his career with the Jets. At running back, Christian McCaffrey’s return from injury will be a big upgrade to the position. The team has to replace do-everything receiver Curtis Samuel and dependable backup runner Mike Davis, who both departed in the offseason.
The Panthers dedicated all of last year’s draft picks to defense and started this year’s draft on that side of the ball as well, selecting corner Jaycee Horn with the eighth overall pick. He’ll be penciled in across from Donte Jackson. After that, however, things get shaky fast. The team will need to find a nickel corner and reliable backups. AJ Bouye would be a good start, but he’ll miss the first two games serving a PED suspension. Troy Pride and Rashaan Melvin will need to step up.
Tre Boston was an emergency fill-in last year, returning to Carolina to plug a hole in the secondary. He left over the offseason, leaving the Panthers again looking for answers at safety. Veterans Juston Burris and Kenny Robinson are the best bets on the roster, but the team was bringing in veterans during minicamps for tryouts, so there may still be a move on the eve of the regular season.
The other safety spot seems to be in good hands with hybrid safety/linebacker Jeremy Chinn, who had an outstanding rookie year.
There aren’t any clear-cut position battles on defensive line or at linebacker, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty. Brian Burns had a breakout season on the edge last year, and Derrick Brown looks like a keeper in the middle. Yetur Gross-Matos and Bravvion Roy are also promising, but the talent up front didn’t translate to high sack numbers last year. They’ll need to get quarterbacks on the ground this year to show they’re more than just potential.
At linebacker, the team brought in Denzel Perryman and Haason Reddick. Perryman should be able to complement Shaq Thompson as a classic ‘backer, giving the Panthers their best linebacker tandem since Thompson and Luke Kuechly. Reddick is more of an edge rusher who should help provide support for the defensive line. The individual pieces are promising, but they’ll need to develop chemistry together quickly during camp.